Thursday, February 22, 2018
The Color of Water: A Black Man's Tribute to His White Mother by James McBride
I never read this book when it was first published in 1996, but it was required reading in the high school of the town where I lived after publication. In fact, I have the Tenth Anniversary edition of this book and in the Afterword, McBridge tell us by the tenth anniversary over two million copies had sold worldwide, translated into more than twenty languages, serialized in the New York Times, and studied by thousands of students each year in literature, sociology, history and creative writing classes.
What strikes me now, reading it twenty-two years later, is the parallel between James McBride’s white mother and Trevor Noah’s black one. Both women crossed race lines romantically and tried to give their mixed children the best possible education within their reach. The kids didn’t take advantage in the ways their mothers had hoped, but the love the mothers had for their children did magic and something about the striving stuck. iIn his Afterword McBride tells us that may be the reason the work resonated so widely: more families than not have some mix somewhere in their family trees, and they relate strongly to this history. Details change but the basic struggle remains the same.
McBride, along with his eleven brothers and sisters, is multi-talented. Everyone in the family learned to play an instrument or sing, tell stories or draw. James’ special skills are telling a story and playing music, and all his life he moved between the two, getting hired and leaving one or the other, then starting a new book and playing music for diversity and cash. It is fascinating to me that kind of rounded life always seemed enough for him; he didn’t get caught in the racket of making money for its own sake.
One sister, Helen, left home early and precipitously. The kind of rough-and-tumble upbringing the family experienced doesn't work for everyone. Some of us are simply more sensitive and require a softer hand. It can be traumatic to be in such a large, rambunctious group, whatever James' experience was. At least he noticed, and mentioned it.
Since most of you reading this will be familiar with this book, I will just quickly point out a few things I admired. His process of getting the story from his mother was kind of ingenious. Plenty of families will have the experience of bumping up against their parents desire to keep some areas of their life private, with the result that the whole doesn’t make as much sense as it should. If I am not mistaken, McBride worked on this story for fifteen years at least, or at least he dreamed about working on it. He had a job working for the Boston Globe right out of college when a Mother’s Day piece he wrote ran to huge acclaim. To expand it, he had to convince his mother to tell her story…but it was years and years before she dropped the last veils.
Ruthie, or Rachel as she was known growing up, was unhappy about leaving her own family, but realized she had no other option. It must have been such a wrenching experience for everyone, that time of giving an ultimatum and having it accepted. But Ruthie was looking forward to living with black people because “they did not judge.” She apparently never changed her mind about that.
Yes, the book could be studied for lots of reasons, but it is a great example of how to write a memoir that doesn’t feel past. It feels as though it is all happening now, or close enough to it to still have fragments of the past showing up in the present. I wonder about that…how he did that, what he was thinking, what the struggle was, and whether or not it was heavily directed by an editor. I don’t think it was, actually, because no one could come up with that kind of structure without it being integral to the material and the creation process.
But McBride does this kind of brilliant sleight of hand in his other works as well. And reading this has given me some insight into the John Brown character he drew for us in National Book Award-winning The Good Lord Bird. McBride’s narrator Onion appeared to have a real affection for Brown, despite recognizing the man was bonkers. He wasn’t condescending. I couldn’t quite figure that out when I read it the first time. I think I might get it now.
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